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Region cannot miss out on sector growth opportunity; The time has come to put the arts at the centre of the regions's economy ... and aspirations, says Brian Woods-Scawen, chairman of Culture West Midlands.

Byline: Brian Woods-Scawen

The West Midlands faces a crossroads in its cultural and creative life. The region can decide whether we have the ambition to continue our long and proud record in cultural activities and facilities. Or we can become simply an also-ran where culture and creativity is marginal to the lives of our citizens. The choice is ours. We do not have long to make it.

The first question to answer is why cultural activity is important. The answer is that culture is a major contribution to three of our most important strategic objectives - to create lasting prosperity, to encourage active people and to support vibrant places.

Cultural industries already make a vital contribution to economic life in the West Midlands. Conservatively, Culture West Midlands estimates the sector already has over 250,000 jobs in the West Midlands.

This represents over 11 per cent of all employment in the region. These are high-quality jobs which generate more than pounds 7 billion to the regional economy, around 13 per cent of all wealth created in the region. This economic activity comes from over 25,000 businesses and organisations which is around 15 per cent of all businesses in the West Midlands.

The cultural sector is also one of the fastest growing in the regional economy, increasing wealth and employment at around five per cent each year. At this rate of growth, the sector will create an extra 150,000 jobs in the next 10 years. This will help to offset some of the economic shock in our traditional industries which are more and more exposed to global competition.

This rapid rate of growth, if it is sustained, will mean an extra pounds 4 billion of wealth will be created in the region by the sector in the next 10 years.

Economically, we cannot afford to miss out on this growth opportunity. The prospects are good. The region is showing the fastest growth of any English region. But we are coming from a low base. The West Midlands has the third lowest employment in cultural industries amongst the English regions, ahead only of the East Midlands and the north-east. The north-west already has 350,000 jobs and the south-east and London each have over 500,000 jobs in the sector.

What will enable the West Midlands to capture this opportunity? We have many advantages. Our investment in facilities - in theatres, museums, small workspaces, like the Custard Factory, for businesses in the sector has been as good as anywhere.

We have a growing film and television industry with successful companies like Maverick and the BBC's move to the Mailbox. The draft regional economic strategy recognises the importance of the sector.

But others are not standing still. Investment in Manchester and Newcastle, for example, has been higher than ours in the last five years.

Cultural industries thrive where talented and imaginative people gather and are celebrated. To attract and retain this talent, we must welcome creative people to the region and speak out loudly about their importance. We must also recognise the contribution that voluntary, social and not for profit enterprises make to the cultural economy. Wealth is not created only by the private sector. Our local authorities must continue to embrace the challenge of building and investing in the cultural sector.

Culture must also have a central place in regeneration. In economically disadvantaged areas, we are not simply changing the built environment. We are also creating sustainable jobs and sustainable communities.

The cultural sector has a vital role to play in this.

If we accept the opportunity to build a cultural economy in the next ten years, we will also achieve our objectives of encouraging active people and supporting vibrant places.

People are at the heart of any cultural activity. Access to cultural facilities and opportunities add directly to a person's quality of life and learning. By exposing people to new experiences, we stretch our minds, open our hearts and help to build a better life for everyone.

After a long period of centrally determined policy when the man in Whitehall knew best, we are at last recognising that our lives, our opportunities and our happiness is strongly influenced by our pride and sense of place locally where we live, work and play. It is our culture and our heritage that helps shape our sense of who we are and where we belong. Our cultural activities also influence our image nationally, in continental Europe and in the global world.

We have a choice. We can put culture at the centre of our economy and our aspirations.

Or we can allow others to seize these opportunities. If we grasp the challenges, we can build in the West Midlands a region that we can all be proud of. We can give economic, learning and lifestyle choices to our people that will make this a great place to live.

All of these plans come together as we prepare for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad - Reine de Coubertin was inspired to invent the modern Olympics when he visited the Much Wenlock games in Shropshire. The West Midlands played an important role in the origination of the games. We will play an important role in 2012. If we do not make the decision now to put culture centre stage, we will lose the chance to influence our future for the better. The opportunity will not return in our lifetime.

It is now or never.

"To attract and retain talent, we must welcome creative people to the region and speak out loudly about their importance
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 18, 2007
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